Gang War In Purgatory: ‘Dead Letters’ Delivers [Review]
Like a good pop song, if a genre comic is going to keep you interested, it has to have a hook. It really doesn’t matter if the art is exceptional, or it has an inventive structure or well-written characters. If it can’t be distilled into one intriguing sentence of less than ten words, then it’s not going to keep your attention. Blind guy fights crime; orphaned billionaire is world’s greatest detective; six guns control the fate of the world; this Avenger is a freaking mess; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. But you can’t just have the hook — a comic with bad art, poor writing, and a fantastic hook is still a mediocre comic.
Dead Letters Vol. 1: The Existential Op by Christopher Sebela and Chris Visions, is far from mediocre, with strong writing, captivating and kinetic art, and a hook that will grab you from the get-go: amnesiac detective joins gang war in Purgatory.
Dead Letters dives in head-first, offering the reader nothing in the way of explanation and warp-driving into an adrenaline-filled tilt-a-whirl of confusion. Awaking in a hotel room with bandages on his arms and a gun on the nightstand, Sam has no memory of who he is or how he got there. He only knows to call himself Sam after the voice on the other end of the phone calls him that, right before telling him to run. It’s a nice play on a familiar setup in amnesiac/blackout and some postmodern detective noir: the protagonist who has to get out of trouble he has no idea how he got into.
Quickly, though, Dead Letters escalates into a carnival of clashing realities and jumbled surroundings. He’s chased by freaks from different eras, running through a landscape of ill-logic and anachronism. Finally, the terms are spelled out for him: Sam is dead. Whoever he was in his past life, he didn’t end up Above or Below, instead landing in Purgatory, only they don’t call it that. They call it “Here”, and the war for control of Here is fought by two gangs, both of whom want Sam on their roster to find a missing woman named Beryl.
When Sam takes on God as a client, all bets are off. Drawing on whatever in his past life prepared him for this, Sam plays both sides against the middle for his own benefit, engineers narrow escapes, and manipulates gangleaders Ma and Jones into destroying each other. But as he dismantles the gang structure in Here, the question is raised: who else benefits?
From the novelty of the hook, Sebela constructs a world that continues that grows with every issue abounding in mysteries and bringing ever more intriguing ideas into an already fascinating setting. The realities of Here are mutable and manifold, and open to possibilities that extend far beyond a noir reworking while fitting comfortably within it; there’s a little grit to every bit of otherworldly weirdness.
Because the citizens of Here are already dead, they can’t be killed unless they’re completely destroyed, their souls “scattered,” so Sam spends the majority of the series recovering from grievous wounds; they can’t feel anything, so there’s a healthy drug trade of “bathtub emotions,” drugs that simulate or stimulate various emotional states. Here has no infrastructure, and suffers from overpopulation, class divisions, and roaming hierarchies aching for control; a band of “Methuselahs,” the first denizens of Here, left the city in the clutches of chaos years ago, moving on to the outskirts to live out their permanent days in limbo’s wastes.
In realizing Here, artist Chris Visions is getting away with a mishmash of clashing visual information that makes perfect (non)sense. With swooping, slashing lines and a unique flair for the cacophony of action, Visions brings a frenzy of movement and oddity to Sebela’s story. Here is a discord of backgrounds, settings, and characters — a way station populated with memories and imaginations. Roman architecture jostles up against run-down apartment buildings; bizarre knick-knacks and curios hoard the page; prohibition-era gangsters gun down katana-wielding geishas and rejects from The Road Warrior, and Visions makes all of it work.
The art can be a little confusing at times, but as confusing a place as Here is, a cleaner style would be dramatically out of place. Visions (spectacularly colored by Ruth Redmond) is a perfect match not just for the jumbled setting, but for the breakneck action that makes every issue a high-octane ride through weirdness, and in Dead Letters we may be witnessing the birth of a future star.
Dead Letters has got everything you look for in a comic. A fascinating premise, compelling characters with mysterious pasts, a world that keeps growing, soul-scattering swords, absent gods, dangerous dames, two questions for every answer, and more twists than a Bavarian pretzel. With the first arc now finished and the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars/Miller’s Crossing gang war wrapped up, there’s no telling where it could go from here. With Sebela and Visions doing the driving, though, it’s bound to be some place worth visiting.